Friday, May 31, 2013

Unai Elorriaga's "Plants Don't Drink Coffee"

Unai Elorriaga López de Letona

Four stories told from different perspectives give a memorable picture of three generations of a Basque family. Tomas, whose father is dying in the hospital, is looking for a rare blue dragonfly that he believes will make him the most intelligent person in the world. His uncle Simon is determined to bring an international rugby match to their village, and so paints up a field in the local golf course. His cousin Mateo wants to know whether his grandfather Julian won the contest to become the best carpenter in all Europe.

Piedad, an old woman who visits Tomas's aunts in the sewing room, owns a mystery that the other women are dying to solve but are too polite to ask directly: why didn't she marry the famous architect Samuel Mud when she was so in love with him? In their different ways, the characters go against convention and so become individuals. The style consists of short simple sentences. The use of syntactical repetition reminds me a little of Gertrude Stein, but it serves to move the plot along.

According to the back flap, Unai Elorriaga was born in 1973 in Bilbao. He is the author of three novels written in Basque and self-translated into Spanish. His 2002 debut A Tram to SP won Spain's Premio Nacional de Narrativa. Amaia Gabantxo translated Plants into English. I got my copy from the Instituto Cervantes when they were giving away free books on the Day of the Book.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Henry James's "Washington Square"

Finally read Washington Square over the Memorial Day weekend. It's comforting, physically, to be in the hands of a master. Catherine Sloper, who has to choose between father and lover, is a wonderful creation. She is dull and plain, but her predicament achieves tragic intensity, and, finally, poignancy. Her father, the successful New York doctor, is also a formidable achievement. A diagnostician of men and women, he judges his daughter rightly, but overlooks the alienating effect of his condescension toward her. 

The other two main characters are simpler. Mrs. Penniman, the nosy aunt, is a slightly more sophisticated version of Austen's emotional women; she is more sensibility than sense. The lover Morris Townsend is a charming rogue, and not much more. The main axle that moves the story forward is the relationship between father and daughter; that relationship looks forward to the one in James's masterpiece The Golden Bowl, in which not two, but four fully drawn characters circle the pitfalls of love and loyalty. 

Washington Square, as its name suggests, also offers the pleasures of seeing something of New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century. The titular square was then surrounded by newish houses, and filled with the aroma of ailanthus. Ambitious young men like Arthur Townsend planted the flag of their houses further north, confident that the rest of society would follow after them, as the city expanded. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Catherine Barnett's "The Game of Boxes"

Of Catherine Barnett's James Laughlin Award-winning book, April Bernard, one of the three judges, wrote, "With subtle and cumulative force, The Games of Boxes builds a complex poetic structure in which fundamental questions about motherhood, trust, eroticism, and spiritual meaning are posed and then set in motion in relation to one another."

There is a danger here of mistaking mere repetition for "cumulative force," for what is most obvious in reading this collection is the limited range of poetic resources on display. The plainspoken voice can only carry a reader's interest so far. There are few striking details, and no original images. The versification is unexciting; it provides no resistance against the speaker. The endings of poems too often rely on the echo of a word in a different sense.

Titling the first-person plural pronoun poems "Chorus" does not by itself build "a complex poetic structure." One such "Chorus" reads:

Whoever's calling keeps hanging up, he
won't leave a message--
so we brush the television, watch our teeth,
and pretend to go to bed,
listening for ringtones in our heads--

This is barren of invention. How could it have passed muster unless it was seen as a stone in "a complex poetic structure." To build an arch, every stone must be sound and play its part. Here, the "structure" is used to justify not one or two crummy stones, but a field of them.

The second danger is to mistake simplicity for what is "fundamental." The sequence in the middle of the book is described in the back blurb by Ilya Kaminsky as "the best love sequence yet given to the English language from poets of our generation." That bold claim cannot be sustained by any reading of the sequence. After twenty-three segments of vague, generalized emotions, the sequence ends with this:

Then he whispers there, there, as if I were a child
and not a woman lying beside him 
but what's wrong with that
it's late 
death's hovering like the cap
hanging from the doorknob 
he takes in hand
when he goes 
where never has anyone
left so quietly 
disentangling the desires of one
from the desires of another. 
Is life like that?
How I slept then.

The cap--to hang from a doorknob is not to hover. "disentangling the desires of one / from the desires of another"--is that the most imaginative way to describe a break-up? The plaintive question "Is life like that?" is simple-minded.

I made a mistake--there is one poem in the collection that is fully alive. In the "Chorus" that begins with the line "We didn't believe an elephant could squeeze into church," Barnett performs an imaginative twist on the saying about the elephant in the room. The comparison of the elephant in the doorway to "a curtain of light, swaying from side to side" is exact and surprising. In just 14 lines, the poem presents "subtle and cumulative force."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Natsumi Sōseki's "Ten Nights' Dreams"

Natsume Sōseki in 1912

Natsume Soseki's Ten Nights' Dreams, translated by Takumi Kashima and Loretta R. Lorenz, comprises ten dreams written like very short stories. Or are they short stories that appear dreamlike? The strongest of them have the mysterious quality of dreams.

In "The Eighth Night," the narrator-dreamer at a barber shop could see people passing by the lattice-window reflected in the mirror in front of him. When he turned around, however, to see a woman counting her yen, she could not be seen. After he paid and went out of the shop, he saw five oblong basins full of goldfish. The goldfish seller, eyes fixed on the goldfish before him, hardly cared about the busy people passing by.

The dream of "The Tenth Night" was strongly sexual. A young man had to keep tapping the snouts of a never-ending line of pigs. When one pig finally succeeded in licking him, he collapsed.

Other dreams have the rigor of a moral lesson. Challenged by a monk to achieve meditation, the narrator-samurai in "The Second Night" attempts strenuously to meditate, but is defeated by his refusal to be beaten by a monk. "The Third Night" tells the story of a murderer who carries his victim on his back in the shape of a child.

The weaker dream-stories in the collection either do not rise above the anecdotal (like the ninth dream) or end with less surprise than they portend (like the fourth and fifth dreams). My favorite is the tenth and final dream, which reminds me of Legion in the Gospels. The Panama hat, given by the dying young man Shoutarou to his friend Ken-san, who told the story to the narrator, is also a beautiful touch.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Novels of Michel Houellebecq

Strangely compulsive an experience it was to read so many Houllebecq novels one after another within a month. I hardly know what drew me along. His bracing pessimism perhaps. Or his fearlessness in saying what is often thought but seldom expressed. Or his surgical precision in dissecting our illusions. Or his frankness about male sexual desire. What is certain is that he is a moralist who confronts the amorality of our biological natures. As organic creatures, we are born, we die. All our grandest ideals, all our basest desires, take place between those two certainties. I read the novels in the order in which they were published.

The Elementary Particles (or Atomised) tells the stories of two half-brothers, abandoned by their fathers and by their common mother who joined the 60s world of druggy free love. Bruno is a failed writer and a hedonist. Michel is an emotionally dead biologist immersed in his work. In other words, both find different ways of coping with their existential isolation. They are offered a chance at love, but, conditioned by their past and present, how could they take the chance? The ending I find rather stuck-on: Michel finds a way to transcend human limitations.

Platform is the most emotionally wrenching of the novels. Michel (another namesake of the author) Renault takes a group holiday to Thailand and meets a travel agent Valerie. Together the lovers work the lucrative market of sex tourism. At the height of their success, Valerie is cut down, with others, but not Michel, by a terrorist massacre. From the novel, this resonant passage:

It's easy to play the smart aleck, to give the impression that you've understood something about life; the fact remains that life comes to an end. My fate was similar to his, and we had shared the same defeat, yet I felt no active sense of solidarity. In the absence of love, nothing can be sanctified.

The Possibility of an Island is structurally most ambitious. The narrative goes back and forth between Daniel, a stand-up comedian who achieved success and notoriety for saying politically incorrect things, and Daniel24, his genetic copy, who lives 1000 years later, after the earth has been devastated by war, drought and earthquakes. Since Daniel24 lives alone in a secured compound and does little but write his commentary on the story of his original, it is perhaps not surprising that his portions of the novel are far less involving than those of Daniel. Houllebecq does not overcome this problem successfully, I think. Still, the book is full of quotable quotes:

The self is the synthesis of our failures but it is only a partial synthesis. 
If a man laughs, if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one, if you disregard the natural self-centredness of animals, to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty
The disappearance of tenderness always closely follows that of eroticism. There is no refined relationship, no higher union of souls, nor anything that might resemble it, or even evoke it allusively. When physical love disappears, everything disappears; a dreary, depthless irritation fills the passing days. And, with regard to physical love, I hardly had any illusions. Youth, beauty, strength: the criteria for physical love are exactly the same as those of Nazism. 
. . . art was always cosa individuale; even when it was a protest, it only had value if it was a solitary protest.  
I had probably never had a real conversation with anyone other than a woman I loved, and essentially it seemed unsurprising to me that the exchange of ideas with someone who doesn't know your body, is not in a position to secure its unhappiness or on the other hand to bring it joy, was a false and ultimately impossible exercise, for we are bodies, we are, above all, principally and almost uniquely bodies, and the state of our bodies constitutes the true explanation of the majority of our intellectual and moral conceptions. 

In The Map and the Territory, the self-reflective, even elegaic, mood is reinforced by the introduction of a character called Michel Houellebecq, a writer. He is asked by the novel's protagonist, Jed Martin, a rising art star, to pen a preface to the catalogue of his show. Jed comes to feel for the older writer the sentiments of a son. His gift of his portrait of Michel to the writer resulted in a horrendous consequence, after which the novel turns abruptly into an absorbing police procedural. The result of the investigation is rather too random for my taste, and Jed's final artwork, which he did in withdrawal from the world, affords less significance than I would have liked.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Buster Keaton's "The General"

Watched a Buster Keaton film for the first time last night, and thoroughly enjoyed his style of physical comedy. The General was a Civil War comedy in which Keaton's Confederate character single-handedly, with his beloved locomotive, won the war against the Union army. The gags were ingenious, poetic in their repetition, variation and pacing. The famous deadpan face was surprisingly capable of expressing an enormous range of emotion. Every scene and gesture was precisely calculated; and the calculation rendered speech superfluous. Now I understand what LW meant when she compared Beckett's Fragments to Buster Keaton.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Spring Diary

Morning Glory, Sopheap Pich, 2011

April 21, had lunch with David Curzon. Before lunch, he showed me his Asian art collection in his UWS apartment. Japanese paintings, Chinese bronzes and ceramics, and Indian sculptures. He gave me his book of 100 midrashim The View from Jacob's Ladder. The commentary on Biblical texts is creative and witty; it often applies another text, literary or religious, to interpret the Bible. The titular commentary is a tour-de-force. It thinks about Jacob's ladder in terms of emotional states, existence, mercy, effects, assent, the heart, success, love, clean hands, sojourn, connection, a difficult equilibrium, invitation, and, finally, enchantment. The writing records the return of a secular Jew to the tradition of his forefathers. His family escaped from the Holocaust to Australia. He found his way as an adult to New York, a Jewish city, as he called it.

April 27, watched Becket's Fragments with GH at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, the five very short plays were Rough for Theater 1, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither, and Come and Go. The consummate actor-clowns Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni gave the audience an hour of sheer magic. Beckett was never so funny and so dark to me,

May 4 - 6, RB stayed with us. We had lunch at Barney Greengrass, a first for me, saw the rattan sculptures of Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich at the Met, and then went for my reading at Two Moon Cafe. She met WL at the reading. The next day, she joined LW and VM to see Beckett's Fragments, before going with me to the Public Theater to see Richard Foreman's new expressionistic drama Old-Fashioned Prostitutes. The play was full of repeated gestures and sounds; the voice-over deepened the mystery. On Monday, after school, we had a lovely picnic in Central Park, before she left for her conference at Rutgers. 

May 11, heard a student's senior recital at Julliard. She played Barber's Sonata for Cello and Piano, which I liked a great deal, Cassado's Suite for Solo Cello, Massenet's Meditation from Thaïs, and Piazolla's Le Grand Tango.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Michel Houellebecq's "The Art of Struggle"

I vaguely heard of Michel Houellebecq before stumbling on his book of poems in the Labyrinth Bookshop. I did not know that he wrote poems, as well as novels. The Art of Struggle, translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, is captivating from the first verse of the first poem:

Dawn rises, grows, settles on the city
We've come through the night and not been set free
I hear the buses and the quiet hum
Of social exchange. I'm overcome with presence.

This is an aubade, but not an aubade that I've ever heard before. The lyrical second line is sandwiched by two plain-speaking lines. The faddish term "social exchange" shares the same line as the philosophical concept of "presence."How can one be overcome with "presence," usually considered a good thing, as opposed to "absence"? The speaker has been defeated even before the day begins. The poem beginning "What we need now is an attitude of non-resistance to the world" gave me the epigraph for a new sequence of poems, "A Position of Defeat."

Like lizards we bask in the light of phenomena,
Waiting for the night;
But we will not fight,
We must not fight,
We stay for ever in a position of defeat.

In its resolute defeatism, the poetry is revolutionary. It not only indicts Western societies of the evils of capitalism and consumerism, but it also rejects the progressive optimism and piecemeal reform of liberalism. To accept the latter is to misunderstand how deep and wide the rot has set in.

An eternity package, all included,
Personalized local discoveries,
Bodies for sale in the clubs,
But no sex guaranteed for the night.

In his relentless focus on urban decay and modern ennui, Houellebecq recalls his poetic predecessor Baudelaire. He is more pessimistic than Baudelaire, however. Desire, lesbian or otherwise, no longer saves; it is dying itself, if not dead. The adventure of walking through the sleaze of Paris he has converted into the daily trudge to La Tour Gan, the nondescript office tower in La Defense, a better symbol for present-day Paris than the Eiffel Tower.

The compact quatrains of most of the poems are varied with the occasional prose poem or poem with long, languorous lines. Houellebecq has a gift for writing manifestoes. His poetry is not afraid of ideas. And one of the biggest is that there is no transcendence in life.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Celebrating Sound

Debbie Chou set my poem "A Position of Defeat 24" to music and sang it at the "Celebrating Sound" event last night. It was a moving and humbling experience, hearing my rhyming quatrains dissolve and then rejoin into a highly coherent, intensely dramatic, composition. I felt as if she and I truly met last night through Matthew Edison Bremer, in whose memory the poem was written. 

Her singing at the piano was a beautiful climax to an evening of poetry and music, which she put together. Jason Irwin, Jennifer Harmon and I read. Two Moon Cafe, where it all took place, also showcased the striking nude photographs of Debbie's husband, James M. Graham.